The long row of tourist buses parked at the entrance to the Lotus Temple complex warns me not to enter, but I decide not to listen. As one of Delhi’s main attractions the temple is plagued by a never-ending stream of tourists both Indian and foreign, but such popularity is usually well-earned and I hope there is still beauty and awe to be found by the stubborn.
In the manicured park surrounding the temple the crowds are eclectic: a few westerners, self-consciously spiritual in harem pants and beads or else mercilessly utilitarian in Gore-Tex jackets and shoes; a gaggle of school girls with matching long braids and dark-blue uniforms; families from the country on a visit to Delhi, the men in carefully pressed dress shirts, the women in colourful saris, socked feet in delicately gaudy sandals, hennaed hands holding kohl-eyed babies, anklets jingling with every step; Indian urbanites in jeans and sneakers, armed with loud Hinglish and selfie sticks.
The Lotus Temple, its white marble flanks dulled slightly by the colourless sky, is the centre of the Baha’i faith in India. It is a young faith which calls for universal unity, equality and peace and accepts all faiths as reflections of one universal truth. I suspect it is this radical tolerance that has so far kept it on the margins of history – it seems that a faith must account for man’s love of conquest if it wants to be taken seriously.
Most visitors don’t come here for the faith. It is the grand lotus-shaped building, the form rather than its content, that has put the Lotus Temple on every tourist map of Delhi. A remarkable feat of architectural vision and engineering, the many-petalled building was dreamt up by an architect from Iran, the country where the Baha’i faith was born in the 19th century and where it is now most fervently persecuted.
The nine-sided temple is surrounded by nine ponds, and it is past one of them that the queue of visitors is lining, balancing on one leg and then the other when removing their shoes before climbing the steps to a terrace. There, by the entrance to the prayer hall, we are herded into two lines, four deep against each wall. A quick introductory speech in English shortens the tenants of the Baha’i faith to a couple of sentences accommodating our short attention spans. We are asked to remain silent in the hall, and to refrain from photography.
The door opens and we enter the cavernous white room, sitting down in the marble-and-wood pews, the seats still warm from the previous occupant. The shuffling of socked feet and the rustle of clothes die down as everyone takes their seat.
Centuries come and go as I look up at the monumental dome. The many intertwined arches implying an inverted lotus create a space at once intricate and minimalist, with a glowing skylight at the top. There are no symbols or icons, nor any rituals performed in this marble white prayer hall which aims to be welcoming to everyone. It’s a small moment of eternity and yet it can’t be more than five minutes before, following some silent signal I can’t see, my batch of visitors gets up and shuffles out. I decide to stay, trying to imagine what this room feels like when it is filled with believers. The magnificence and serenity of the room is undeniable and after a while the patting of so many bare and socked feet coming and going becomes just another part of the building. I sit with closed eyes and for a moment I find that rarest of beasts – silence.